When is a physical product better than digital?
I may only be speaking for myself, but I am just not interested in owning a cd just to have it. If I am just going to rip it and store it I might as well just download it. So what makes it worth having in my world?
Mainly I think the artist needs to have some interest in making a physical product in an of itself. If you aren't putting creative energy into designing it and finding some visual expression of who you are and what you have done musically to put into it - then just stop. There are far too many cds in the world that have no artistic reason for existing.
Case in point: Morrissey's "World Peace is None of Your Business". I bought this pre-order in order to get the cd, t-shirt, poster with my name on it, and the limited digipak gatefold as well as the extra tracks for download. I am a fanatic for Morrissey so it was a given I would get it - but that doesn't mean I wasn't disappointed in the lack of variety in the artwork - the lack of creativity - and the feeling I bought into a promotional process rather than a creative one. If this was a one off release I would say it was the label's fault, but Morrissey has consistently given fans a rather boring physical product albeit with some interesting choices for cover art it makes a better screensaver than a cd worthy of display. If I didn't love the music so much and desire to support the artist to the fullest extend I would have stuck to a download.
Also; size matters! If I can't see it and read it then what good is it? Often I think album art is created on a larger scale and then shrunk to cd size. Who gives final approval to these ridiculous creations?
Diary of Dreams gave a great example of quality with the release of "(if)". It came in a glossy unassuming gift box but contained a cd sized but well made and lengthy photo essay and lyric booklet. The two cds were in an seperate elegant fold out with a center photo and there was a folded poster.
If you are going to put your lyrics in a cd booklet take a look at The Magnetic Fields "Distortion" for an example of how to size it. You can actually read it without a magnifying glass or even squinting.
R.E.M. released "Automatic for the People" in a wooden box containing artwork on separate pieces of transparent paper. It is a cherished piece and has been on display in my home for decades.
One of the most disappointing and rather upsetting physical products I have bought is The Feeling "Boy Cried Wolf". The format of putting the cd inside of a book is very favorable to me. I loved the size of it and the quality of the linen paper was nice to the touch, but the photos and everything else about it was just awful. Blurry printing and odd dark colors - it is just dismal and unrepresentative of the music. There isn't a single picture of the band or anything that makes it connected to the band at all. Even the autographs inserted loosely inside just seemed like some scribbles on the backside of a worthless postcard. I hope other artists can take this format concept and do something more worthwhile with it.
I will certainly discuss this in more length in future blogs specifically regarding new releases as I review them. It is a topic I am passionate about and feel will help determine what kind of physical music products we will see in the future.